Monday, February 21, 2011

Bookstores without Borders

Almost three years ago.  Do you remember the Summer of 2008?  Bush was President.  China hosted the Summer Olympics.  And - our Economy imploded.  My coworkers and I in Ye Olde Bookshoppe had it worse than some retailers because we were suddenly being poked by a pitchfork with two tines.  Not only did the Economy start doing its best Shrinky Dink impersonation, but a Borders opened down the street from us.  At the exact same time.

Borders.  I'm conflicted.  They're bankrupt now, you know, that, yes?  As of last Wednesday.  But in '08?  Though showing signs of wear and tear, they were still a behemoth.  That first week they opened, a young man walked into our store and sought me out.  Are you Nick? he asked as he thrust his hand out for a shake.

Yes, I said.

The manager? he asked, still shaking my hand.

Yes, I said again.  How may I help you?

Wanted to introduce myself, he said.  I work at the Borders that just opened.

He let that sink in, like he was Santa Anna and I a beleaguered Jim Bowie holed up in the Alamo.

Well, it was nice knowing you, he said, before marching out, La Cucaracha no doubt playing in his head.

When I told Michael - owner and President of the fine collection of bookstores of which I am a part - about this exchange, Michael smiled and said, Don't worry.  When they write the history, you'll be the last one standing.

Michael reminded me of our exchange on Wednesday morning.  He said, You remember what I told you, right?

It was my turn to just smile.

We happened to be having our monthly manager's meeting on the day that Borders declared it was headed into Chapter 11, and I'll admit, I brought YouTube up on my phone and played Taps at the start of our meeting, and that provoked some hooting and hollering.

Still, I'm conflicted.  I said that, right?  Borders is a bookstore, after all.

I mean, it's not like when A Clean Well Lighted Place turned out the lights, or when Cody's locked its doors for the last time, or when Stacey's bid adieu - when those good bookstores shuffled off this mortal coil, the heartache was more real because they were fellow independents and the light everywhere dimmed.  Everywhere.

Bookstores - look, I know.  I've got a horse in this race.  I manage a bookstore - of course I worry when the canaries in my particular coalmine start to go quiet.  So, taking into account that fact, that I have a material interest in the discussion, I do feel - have always felt - that bookstores are different.

There was a Stacey's at Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto when I was a kid, up there on the second floor.  It lured me inside anytime I accompanied my mom on a shopping trip.  I can picture the Sci Fi/Fantasy Section - about a third of the way down the wall on the right.  This was more than 30 years ago - when I was heavy into Fantasy - but I can see it in my mind's eye like it was yesterday.  I remember dipping into the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for the first time while standing near that bookshelved wall.  I coveted a hardcover, slipcased edition of the Lord of the Rings that they carried - a boxed set that would end up wrapped for me under the Christmas tree that year.

Stacey's followed me like a good friend - after we moved to Palo Alto when Karen started Law School, we were delighted to find Stacey's waiting for us.  And then when we moved to San Francisco after Karen graduated - there was Stacey's again, down on Market Street.

The very next year, though, in 1994, Borders and Waldenbooks joined forces - and like a tidal wave of orcs, they swept across the land, mercilessly engulfing independent bookstores.

Ashes to ashes, Stacey's.  RIP, The Bookstore in Modesto.  Ah, Charlotte's Web, we hardly knew ye.

The age of the Indies was over, everyone intoned, the time of the Orc had come

Again - this was tragic because we're talking about bookstores and, damn it all, bookstores are important.  You don't need a curator for toilet paper.  You don't need a personality behind the cola collection in the 7-Eleven on the corner.  Bookstores are something else.  Well, Good bookstores, at least.  And when you walk into a Good bookstore, when you feel the presence of guiding hands that have chosen the offerings with's different than walking into Walmart, all right?

It wasn't the guy selling Twinkies that published Ginsberg's Howl.  It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, through his store, City Lights.  And it was Ferlinghetti who was brought to trial on obscenity charges - charges that he defended and refuted before winning the case when the Judge determined that Howl, indeed, was socially important.

Can we agree that time has been on Ferlinghetti's side and has ratified that decision?

Or on the other coast, Frances Serloff flaunted the law when she, at the Gotham Book Mart, sold copies of banned books like Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Sold the books knowing full well that she was breaking the law.

God bless her.

Oh ho, you may be saying.  Old news!  Who cares?  That was all then, this is now.

It would be pretty to think so, wouldn't it?

You do know, yes, what the Patriot Act did?  For our purposes, let us only talk about Section 215 of the Act.  It allows our Big Brothers and Big Sisters to go to your friendly neighborhood bookstore or to the library that you frequent and make that bookstore or that library tell Big Brother and Big Sister what it is you've been reading.  I imagine it would go something like this:

The story you are about to read is true.  Not even the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

There's a knock at Ye Olde Bookshoppe.  BOOKSELLER answers.

I understand Nick Petrulakis works here.

Bookseller covers mouth with hand, aghast.

Yes.  Yes he does.  But how did you know?

Secret Agent Man pushes into Ye Olde Bookshoppe.

I'll ask the questions.  My information indicates that Mr. Petrulakis (also for our purposes, "Mr. Petrulakis" shall be me) bought the Anarchist Cookbook.  And The Survival Chemist.  And The Construction of Secret Hiding Places.  All from this establishment.  Is that true?

It's true.  Yes, yes it's true.

Bookseller points at self.

All of it!  All true!  Since I'm Nick, I'll rat myself out.  Ok?  I did it.  I bought those books.  For research!  For research, I tell you.  I'm writing the Great American Novel.  It was part of a character study.

Sir, that's immaterial.  I'm here for proof.  To that end, I have an Order for the purchase records of Mr. Petrulakis.  The Order can't be challenged.  Also, you can't tell anyone you've received this Order.  That would be verboten.  Under the law.

But this isn't Russia!  This is the United States of America!  I got rights!  I got rights!


Rights?  Your rights and my own have been slashed under the Patriot Act (a piece of legislation named by the grandson of George Orwell)  (ok, I made that up) but you and I don't care because it couldn't happen to you.  Couldn't happen to me, right?

Funny thing is, even if it did happen to me, I couldn't tell you about it.  Remember?  Verboten. 

So...let's not argue about the fact that the government has the right to demand to know WHAT YOU'VE BEEN READING.  Or, um, what you've been CHECKING OUT AT THE LIBRARY.  After all, this is all in the good fight against Terrorism.  Yeah, yeah, Big Brother and Big Sister had to change the law (see Section 215, above) to get their way, but let us not forget - WMD's?  Mission Accomplished?  You haven't forgotten, have you?  You promised.

In light of all that, it's absolutely fine that I have to divulge your buying records when they come calling.

Really - it's fine.  Or so the government thinks.

We don't.

In 2005, The Campaign for Reader Privacy was begun by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and the PEN American Center.  We all felt you should, you know, be able to buy books without the threat of having your reading list scrutinized by a Secret Agent Man.

I know, I know, silly booksellers.  We're all a bunch of Commie, clove smoking, tattooed ne'er-do-wells.  Only trying to subvert your constitutional rights.

Actually, it's the opposite.  To promote that fact, I'm designing bumper stickers.  The first will read:  I'll give you my book when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Ok already.  I'll stop.  And I'm not saying that I wear a cape.  If I did, I'd look as goofy as Seth Rogan's Green Hornet.  What I am saying is, bookstores are important.  They provide a place where you can come and discover new ideas, new voices.  Some subversive, some not.  What we offer, with any luck, is a place where you're treated with respect.  Where you can spoil yourself with that beach-read you're embarrassed to admit you've been waiting for.  Where you can catch up on the words of the ideologues from the left and the right.

You want a copy of the Constitution?  I've got it at the front register.  We've sold more than 500.  It's such a little document, you wouldn't think it would cause so much trouble.

Not all of us can be Lawrence Ferlinghetti and launch a movement.  But you know what?  Firefighters spend great swaths of time waiting.  Only a fool would begrudge them that, because they're there, just in case.  And booksellers?  Everyday, we're here just in case, too.  As a meeting place where conversations can occur, where opinions can be trafficked - not behind some anonymous posting in the cloud, but face to face.  Everyday, making sure that you can get your hands on what you want.  Your neighbor might not agree with your selection, but at least you're allowed to make up your own mind.

We employ people who live where you live.  We give back to our communities, every day.  You tell us what you want, we provide it.

Some of us have fought the good fight, thumbing noses at the censors who say No.  Others have fallen in love with an author and helped to launch a career.  Or we're just tracking down that book you heard about on the radio.  I may think Palin is an idiot, or that Al Franken is a buffoon, but if you want their books, I'll ensure you get them.

I think we call that being in the service of a free exchange of ideas.

The problem is - when any bookseller falls, your choices are diminished.  If you're happy going to Costco and having your book selection limited to the 10 titles they've decided you should buy - if you're thrilled that Amazon can get it to you at a discount, and that's the most important thing determining where and what you buy - then we have nothing to talk about.

If, however, you want to be able to ask for help.  If, however, you need a donation for your school/church/synagogue (try that at Amazon).  If, however, you're fond of choice and don't want to be confined to the Top Ten of someone else - then you know what?

You need to patronize the shops in your neighborhood.  Barbara, across the street at Daisy's, was telling me about the looky-lou who told her that she loves browsing the wares Barbara offers.  She'd never think of buying anything, but she does like to look.

Folks - Daisy's isn't a museum.  Bookstores aren't museums.  And if they were, we'd at least charge you to come in.  You thrive when we thrive.  So if you like the shop, support it.  Crass though this may be, "support" means spending money.

Borders.  I got a little bit away from the bankrupt Borders, which is what made me sit up and take notice.  Another bookstore, gone.  More booksellers out of work.

I won't write their history.  I'll leave that to the smarter, the better informed.  They'll be able to tell you about the bad business practices, about the fact that the very size of Borders hindered its ability - like the T. Rex of old - to dodge the meteors as they started falling from the sky.

Do I wish the jerk from Borders who came into my store with the intention of throwing dirt into my grave was still there?  Closing down his shop for good while we're here to serve another day?  Sure.  Along with some of my partners in crime:  Mrs. Dalloways.  Rakestraw.  Diesel.  A Great Good Place.  Laurel Bookstore.  Alexander's.  Booksmith.  West Portal.  Modern Times.  Green Apple.  Bookshop Santa Cruz.  Book Passage.  Pendragon.  Pegasus. . .

We take no pleasure, I assure you, in seeing your alternatives - our alternatives - narrowed and reduced.  Again.  Because that just means the light is dimming.  Again.

Do me a favor.  Read a book.  See a movie.  Listen to a song.  Pay for the privilege and be thankful  the opportunity is there to be had.

All this pontificating is hard work.  I need a drink.  First round's on me.


  1. This was great! What you really need to do when you come out of the movies is eat an ice cream, get a bar of soap from me, buy your kid a book from Nick and a baby gift for your neighbors new little munchkin from one of our sweet baby stores. On your way home pop into the market place and get some bread and pasta and cook at home. We need all the small retailers of the world. The truth is all of us have something people can afford and will use or give as a gift someone will love. We will employ someone and hire a graphic designer you know etc. We won't pocket it or wait for it to make money over seas. Unlike amazon we won't send you an email 15 minutes after you leave telling you what a computer has calculated you might buy based on your last purchase. If you don't live in Alameda, CA drive to your nearest neighborhood street filled with mom & pops and buy a little something in 3 stores. You will feel good, they will feel good and the engine that drives america will get a little more fuel.

  2. Nick, I say Bravo, best wishes.,,lets have lunch..

  3. Barbara - amen, Sister!

    Chris - I'm easy to find. Books Inc. in Alameda. I look forward to it!

  4. Thanks for very nice posting. Great idea .

  5. good sad stuff - i would pass this around, but you know. verboten.

  6. CD - it would be ironic, though, if you did spread the word, because for the screenplay bit, I tried to channel my inner Christian.

    All errors and awfulness, of course, are my own.

  7. And for Romantic Dinner - thank you for all of your nice and thoughtful comments. I appreciate them very much! Thanks!

  8. great story thanks for the posting I really impress and happy to after read this story.

  9. Thanks for very nice posting. and Great idea

  10. Well, Nick. Here it is mid-July 2011, and it looks like Border's is going down for good. Here's my prediction: The other big box book retailer(s) will disappear, and we'll be back to independent bookstores as the sole brick & mortar option for browsing and buying.

    Is Books Inc, with its multiple locations, ready to be the big kid on the retail block? It's going to be about more than just good service. The independents will need to offer customers some experience they just can't get anywhere else. In my industry, music stores are now making most of their profits from their music lesson programs (which include WiFi and coffee for parents as well as monthly rock band performances starring the students) and realize that instrument sales are happening more and more online. If you come up with a great experience, you and your store will be golden!